Rarer Still
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Only a few people in history have ever experienced what I’m about to. A club of only a precious few hundred, minuscule relative to all those who have lived and died on our planet.

Not entirely true, I correct myself; some of them have died off our planet, trying to do what I am. I put the dark thought out of my head, busying myself with the equipment — though all of it has been tested, inspected, dis- and re-assembled, and checked and rechecked a thousand times by now. Every component from the flight computers to the faceplate of my suit are backed by the full weight of — well, who’s funding this isn’t terribly important. But right now, strapped into my padded seat in the command module, I’m in the safest place on the planet.

The engineers have allocated the last hour or so for final systems checks. It’s all automated, of course — so there’s nothing for me to do except sit here and wait for the timer to count down, radio chatter in my ear. When it reaches 01:00:00, I feel the ship rumbling under me, like a great beast awakened. The chatter picks up: “Delhi to Xerxes, all lights green, initiating launch procedures. You’re a go for launch.” Those are the words I’ve been dreaming of for longer than I can remember. The next few seconds pass as if in a haze, monitors feeding me data, lights coming on, ensuring me all systems are go.

The rare experience of your last minute on Earth. And then I’m gone.

Rarer still is the speed.

In the matter of ten seconds, I’m rammed back into my padded chair as the Xerxes shoots upward, propelled by tons of rocket fuel being ignited to push me off the earth at 139 meters a second. Sixty seconds from now, that number will be 433 meters per second — another minute after that, and I’ll be cruising along at 1300 meters per second, making me the fastest thing in the atmosphere. But not for long.

For now, the g-forces slamming into my body, even through the protective gear, are enough to make my blood hold still — though I won’t pass out. That’s not a declaration of will: it’s impossible for me to pass out at the angle I’m seated in. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like it, though. The few minutes after launch, as the Xerxes rockets to over 10,000 meters a second in eight minutes, are by far the most terrifying of my life.

The smile forms on my face without me even being aware of it.

Rarer still is the solitude, the solo ascent to space.

It’s been done before, but for modern missions, crews are sent up in groups. They train and bond for months, often years in advance. And when the time comes, they go to space as one entity.

But I’m alone. The mission demands it. There is no one to talk to, no one to exchange dramatic one-liners with, no one’s hand to clutch as we’re compressed under 5 G’s of force. I’m in constant communication with Delhi, of course, but it’s not the same. I’m as far away from another person right now as anyone has ever been. The only chance I have of anyone recognizing my existence before I’m gone is someone on a beach somewhere pointing at the object in the sky for the few seconds until it vanishes from view.

But that’s okay. Being alone is nice. It allows me to appreciate the forces acting on my body and on my ship. No distractions. The pressure and acceleration increases, and then suddenly drops. I’m so engrossed in the computers it doesn’t immediately strike me until I begin to float up from the seat, restrained only by the straps. I unstrap myself and push off from the console.


Rarer still is the weightlessness.

I haven’t really ‘escaped gravity’ — that’s just not how orbit works. I’m still falling, I’m just falling aligned with the rotation of the Earth, so that I’ll never hit the surface. Not for a while, anyway.

It’s surreal. I’ve trained for it, of course, but it’s one thing to be buoyant in water, and another to be surrounded by nothing. After I push off, I drift for a few seconds in the empty cabin, feeling less like a bird and more like a fish in an empty fishtank. My hand reaches out, and my body turns in the opposite direction. Newton, that bastard.

Weightlessness is a weird feeling. It’s terrifying, not being attached to solid ground anymore. But you get used to it surprisingly fast. The interior of the command module is littered with handholds and anchors for me to grab and push off from. I smoothly shoot down the main cylinder to the back, where the fuel terminals are, and land with an awkward shove against the metal.

You’d think I’d be terrified, throwing up, but if anything, it’s freeing. I may not have escaped gravity in a physicist’s sense, but I’m no longer bound by Earthly forces. I move and dance through the pressurized atmosphere of the Xerxes, shooting from handhold to handhold, a silent ballet.

I’m gonna be up here for a few minutes while the main ion thrusters prepare to burn. Rocket fuel’s gotten me this far, but from here on out I’m going to be using unproven technologies, technologies the rest of the world doesn’t even know exist. Ground control guides me through the process of detaching the remaining fuel tanks to reduce my mass as much as possible, then instructs me to find a nice view while the engines build heat. So I do.


Rarer still is the view.

Every astronaut or cosmonaut who returns from space has a unique perspective on the view. Most say it’s humbling and a reminder of how tiny we all are in the grand scheme of things, some say it’s terrifying and a display of the universe’s indifference towards humanity. As I look out through the porthole of the ship, Earth looks less like a blue marble and more like a pot of soup. Roiling, swirling, vast cloud formations drifting across the blue surface as it turns endlessly.

This is a view only a few people in history are lucky enough to have witnessed. I count my blessings that I’m among them. I grab one of the cameras and snap a photo. No one will ever see it.

I hear the radio chatter tell me that the initial engine burn is almost ready, and to get into my seat. I respond with the affirmative but wait a few seconds. I want to see Asia drift across my view one more time. There are billions of people down there. It’s hard to fathom.

I’m suddenly thankful I’m alone up here. If there was someone else, I’d feel obligated to make some grand statement about the human condition, some weak attempt to put into words what seeing this view makes me feel inside. But there’s no words and no one to say them to, so I drink it in in stoic silence instead.

Then I kick off, spinning through the air and back into my seat.


Rarer still is the goodbye.

Most people who do go to space — already a very small club — go to low Earth orbit. Only a very small handful of people have ever gone beyond. I’m about to join that club.

The engine burn began several minutes ago. It’s a low-level but constant acceleration. By now, I’m cruising along at speeds that would make most satellite probes jealous. In a few hours, I’ll be going fast enough that I’ll — well, I don’t need to think about that yet.

For now, though, I can cast one sidelong glance out the window as I shoot away from Earth. The blue half-horizon getting smaller and smaller, imperceptibly at first then notably by the time we’re an hour in.

When I left home for college, I looked at my house as I drove away, and my parents in the driveway waving goodbye. I cried a little bit, not because I was leaving, but because it overwhelmed me that no matter how far I went, I could always come back to this place, to my home, and know I would be loved.

I don’t cry now. I know I’m never coming back.


Rarer still is the moon.

This is perhaps the rarest experience of them all. No, that’s not quite right; it would be if I was walking on it. But I’m not lucky enough to step foot on Luna — the Xerxes is simply swinging around it to get a tiny bit of an extra boost. I need all the velocity I can get.

The approach lasts longer than the maneuver itself. I see a dot, grow larger and larger until it’s a fist-sized irregular ball of gray. Then, suddenly, it’s the Moon — iconic, pockmarked, half-smooth. Waiting for my arrival, welcoming me back.

This is the only time on my ascent I allow myself a crack of emotion. I can’t help it, the grin spreads across my face like I’m drunk. In my head, I’m still a high schooler wondering what to do with his life. I never thought this would be me. I never thought I would make it here.

I want more than anything to take manual control, to kill the thrusters and land on the surface. To walk around, make contact with Starsite-1. See humanity’s secret space program. But I have higher callings. The best I can do is press my face against the glass, seeing the Earth’s distant lover up-close. She’s silent, grim — more beautiful than I could ever imagine.

I come in surprisingly close. The Xerxes needs to, to get the gravity assist. The dark side isn’t really ‘dark’, but it is covered with pockmarks and craters, bleached by solar radiation. My eyes focus on a red-and-white spire jutting out of the gray regolith — Starsite-1. They can see me too, I’m sure. I offer a half-hearted salute, imagining someone down there is doing the same.

I hope they are. They’re the last people who will ever see me.

Rarest of all is the escape.

In humanity’s history so far, we’ve only made four objects that have departed our solar system.

I’m about to become the fifth, and the only one who’s alive.

I lean back in my seat. The artificial gravity is active now that the engines have hit full thrust. It’s the only way to ensure I don’t get utterly crushed under the speeds I’m going at. Once I pass through the termination shock and exit the solar system, the Haller Drive will activate.

I’ve been in space for close to a year now, constantly accelerating with anomalous technology. I’m about to go to sleep.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I wake up. But I know it’ll be something no one has ever seen before.

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